Head of School John Austin wrote to the graduating 12th graders on April 29th that Deerfield was delaying graduation until early August. Hopeful that Deerfield would welcome the Class of 2020 on campus for an in-person Commencement, Dr. Austin did not initially follow our peer schools that had opted to host an online graduation ceremony at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
However, in light of an increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s newly implemented travel order, by early August, it became apparent that it was no longer realistic for Deerfield to graduate its 204 12th graders on campus. On August 9th, Deerfield hosted a historic online Commencement to celebrate the Class of 2020.
When brainstorming methods to hold commencement, Dr. Austin said, “Everything we’ve done, every decision we’ve made, every question we have asked, has foregrounded the health and safety of the community… but at the same time, we have our own distinctive educational mission and culture, and we’re trying to preserve as much of that as possible.”
For the health of Deerfield’s community and Commencment’s distinct experience to be maintained, online was the most fitting format to host the event. Assistant Head of School for Student Life Amie Creagh said, “We wanted it to be as shared and inclusive as possible and the virtual [Commencement] was what offered closure.” Ms. Creagh commented that the administration also considered hosting a hybrid model Commencement where students who were able to attend in person could come to campus while others would participate virtually. However, Ms. Creagh wanted to “make sure everybody could be together, even if that’s in a virtual space.”
With this idea in mind, the Office of Advancement, the Communications Office, and the IT Department set out to create a virtual Commencement that would offer some closure to the Class of 2020.
Director of Alumni Relations Jennifer Hammond was at the helm of the effort to coordinate and oversee all that went into the event. In a normal year, Ms. Hammond oversees an entire week of graduation celebrations.
Ms. Hammond and her team made it their mission to incorporate the essence of the graduation ceremony to a virtual platform. Ms. Hammond said that “the key word is celebration… this class has just been amazing, they have gone above and beyond in so many ways, when they were on campus and off campus, finishing out their year, so I really, really wanted to celebrate them.”
The Commencement featured a timelapse of the construction of the green and white tent that traditionally houses Commencement. Izzy Hamlen ’20 said, “I really appreciate how hard [Ms. Hammond and her team] worked to make our departure something to remember.”
The video then shifted to drone shots of the rock as a bagpipe could be heard in the background. Viewers watched as Mr. Goodchild stood at the tip of the rock, playing his bagpipe with the view of Deerfield’s campus visible below him.
The Commencement ceremony began in a traditional format. The speakers thanked the Class of 2020 for their legacy and expressed hope for the future. President of the Board of Trustees Brian Simmons acknowledged that this Commencement will likely become a “special part of Deerfield lore.” Dr. Austin stood in front of the iconic wooden door on the front of the John Williams dormitory applauded the Class of 2020’s resilience during “these unexpected, uncertain, and disorienting months.”
Student body Co-President Kareena Bhakta ’20 and Nick Fluty ’20 were the students chosen by their class to speak at Commencement. Both reflected on their time at Deerfield and how much they had grown since their 9th grade year. Bhakta ’20 remarked afterward that filming her speech “took some time to capture the video and audio correctly, but both Ms. Hammond and Mr. Laprade were very supportive.”
The keynote speaker for this year’s Commencement was Hannah Pittard ’97, acclaimed novelist and professor at the University of Kentucky. In her speech, Pittard congratulated the class of 2020 and said, “We can’t move back, we can only move forward.”
Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Ivory Hills then read the names and awards for each graduating 12th grader. In most years, 12th graders would walk on stage and receive a diploma, but this year the Communications Office sent out diplomas once Commencement went virtual. Hamlen said, “It definitely was not Commencement, but coupled with the farewell Zoom call back in May, and the Senior Video, I think it was a great final send-off.”
The ceremony concluded with a few more surprises. As the credits rolled down, a familiar woman with long blond hair appeared on the screen: “Hi you cool cats and kittens, it’s Carole Baskin!” Even Carole Baskin, reality television sensation, had been invited to wish the class of 2020 well. As she finished her message, another image appeared, featuring Leslie David Baker, the actor of Stanley Hudson in “The Office” television show, offering his encouragement.
But this was not all. The cherry on top was a video clip played at the end of the broadcast, of none other than Dr. Austin cruising happily down Main Street on a skateboard. The celebratory mood of these last special touches reminded the Class of 2020 that they are loved by all of the Deerfield Community, and that their accomplishments are worthy of great celebration. Bhakta said, “Overall, it seems the organizers of our Commencement were involved in every detail to make it as special as possible for our class.”